I made a good friend today, and I will never see him again.
December 13, 2009
Prague, Czech Republic
This past fall I spent five days in Prague, Czech Republic as part of an eighteen-day trip through Europe. Late one afternoon I took off from Plus Prague Hostel and went for a run in the nearby Stromovka park. As I climbed one long hill, a Czech man in a blue running suit passed me as he trotted down the hill. When I reached the top of the ascent I stopped to take in the view – the sun had set, and lights were beginning to sparkle on the direction of the nearby Prague Castle. A minute later, the blue-clad runner appeared at the top of the hill and stopped suddenly. My experience told me he was doing a hill workout. I called out to him, “Are you doing an interval workout?
“Um, er, uh…what?” he responded, yelling over the sound of his tiny earphones.
“Are you doing a hill workout?”
Still no comprehension. I walked over to him and motioned up and down the hill with my arm and asked again, “Are you running the hill?” Finally understanding me, he nodded. Jumping on the opportunity for a new adventure, if not an actual workout, I asked if I could join him. He said yes and we began jogging down the hill together. This first time down the hill we ran next to each other in silence. When we neared the spot where the man was beginning his intervals I followed his lead as we turned around, he said “let’s go!”, and we began speeding uphill. We ran up the hill side-by-side at a quick, comfortable, and even pace. I had been running alone for weeks with little speed work, and this scene launched me right back into my element as a collegiate runner. I was surprised at how evenly matched we were. I could not tell for sure, but it seemed that he was running exactly the pace he wanted to, and it was perfect for me. At the top we walked for about ten seconds, and turned to jog down the hill again. Invigorated, I decided to run a couple more with him.
The second time down the hill we began to talk. Through mostly hand motions we each explained what events we ran and what our best times were. I learned that he runs the 5000m and 10,000m, but I could not understand the times he gave me. He asked me my name and had a hard time pronouncing it. When I asked his name, he said it once in Czech (actually to my ear he sounded German), then he said “Carlos” and after a pause he said “Charlie”, as if he had finally located in his memory the English version of his name. He told me he was nineteen, and I told him I was twenty-one and running for a college in the USA. I think he wants to go to college, but is not enrolled yet.
When we had completed four hill intervals, he indicated that there were two left (he had previously mentioned the number fourteen – I think – which was probably his total reps for the workout). I told him I needed to go, because I needed to meet a friend. We stopped at the bottom of the hill, and I shook his hand. I thanked him for letting me run with him. He pointed at the hill and said, “you running very good” with a smile. I thanked him and returned the compliment, and he thanked me sincerely. I shook his hand again. Up until this point, every time we had paused at the bottom of the hill he had been all business, immediately ready to run up again. As I said goodbye to him, he paused and stood there at an understandable loss for words. I paused also, in that instant lamenting that I could not say “Hey I’ll find you on Facebook” or “give me your number and we can run together tomorrow”. I didn’t have a cellphone, and even if he has Facebook, neither of us could have remembered the other’s name or been able to spell it. So I gave him a grateful smile, said goodbye, and turned away.
I will never see Charlie again, a fact that seemed sad at first. But as I plodded back toward my hostel I quickly saw the value of that short experience. I know of nothing that can bring two people together better than working hard side-by-side and pushing one another to achieve more. This is one of the miracles of sports, particular to those sports that require humility and an all-out physical effort. In this case no lasting friendship was forged, and hardly any words were exchanged. However, I know I made a great choice by asking to run with Charlie. It created a memory that both of us will enjoy. In addition, for those few moments I was able to serve as an ambassador from America. I gave that one Czech kid a good impression of Americans, and a reason to respect our people. Little things like that can do a whole lot for our image abroad. Maybe he will decide to go learn English so that he can communicate with the next American who approaches him in the middle of a workout. Maybe it will inspire him to work harder – it has inspired me. At any rate, we gave each other reason to love this sport for the connections it can facilitate.